What is happening at Café Momentum is extraordinary! This nonprofit restaurant and culinary training facility is transforming the lives of kids from juvenile detention centers through food and cooking. The organization is funded by donations, foundations, and the checks from each night. Co-founded by beloved local chefs Chad Houser and Janice Provost, this Dallas-based program is a setting where at-risk youth receive intensive culinary, job, and life-skill training, plus mentorship and support to help them achieve their full potential. Houser is the hands-on chef, executive director, and head honcho at the café, and his passion is palpable. “At first I stereotyped these kids, but I was blown away,” Houser says. “They made eye contact, were eager to learn, and called me sir. For most of these youngsters, raspberry and mango were drink flavors — they had never tasted the actual fruits, which was incomprehensible to me.”
The concept began simmering in 2010 with over 40 pop-up evenings hosted at various locations around town. Now, it’s a successful restaurant in the downtown area aptly known as Thanksgiving Square. The restaurant is bright, open, and airy, and each table is set with donated plates, bowls, flatware, and glasses, all of which are beautifully mismatched. A sponsor’s name is inscribed on every table, and guests enjoy a delicious meal while paying it forward. The chef’s table is made from reclaimed wood and was custom built for Houser. Adorning an entire wall is the Café Momentum “I’m Thankful Plate Project,” an arrangement of individual plates that have a personalized, handwritten message of thanks from each student who takes part in the program. It stops you in your tracks, draws you in, and garnishes the story of the restaurant.
From serving customers to washing dishes, each student must rotate through five restaurant responsibilities, spending 12 weeks at each station. Required lessons, covering everything from anger management to art, are taught in a classroom located in the back of the restaurant. “I want stability and consistency for these kids so they can reach their potential,” says Houser. “We are teaching them how a restaurant runs — to show up and take pride in their work.” Every intern makes $10 per hour no matter what station they are working, and tips are accepted, but used as donations.
These enthusiastic kids work alongside a team of seasoned chefs and dish out creative, delicious, locally sourced, and sophisticated dishes like octopus tiradito, pea shoot and prosciutto salad, beef braciole, scallops and ricotta gnocchi, and apple pie with smoked Cheddar ice cream. The vibe is heartwarming and contagious. I met a few of these students and was immediately impressed and inspired… this place is magical and the food rocks!